Drive 'n' Hide

Hardly daring to breathe, ignoring glutinous mud and blood sucking insects, inching ever closer, applying every field craft trick he knows to remain undetected, the archetypal nature photographer closes in on his wary prey. Alternatively, enduring long and uncomfortable hours in a cramped hide, with one eye bulging from straining through the viewfinder, he waits, (with unwavering patience) for the split-second when everything comes together and makes it all worthwhile. But it doesn't always have to be this way. While I have "enjoyed" both of the above it would be true to say that the majority of my covert wildlife photography has been from the comfort of a vehicle.

The great advantage of using a car as a hide is its supreme flexibility. I can load it up with much more equipment than I would ever dare to consider carrying up hill and down dale. The interior can be arranged to my convenience and comfort. Best of all, if things don't go well I can easily head off to another location and try again. Some time ago a magazine solicited its readers for their opinion of the best bird watching vehicle. Top of the pile was the Land Rover Discovery for its spacious interior and excellent high viewpoint. But as we photographers know, there is a world of difference between watching something through binoculars and photographing it. Fortunately for my wallet, I have found that just about any vehicle will do (although a low slung Ferrari may be the exception that proves the rule).

PREPARATION

mounted on door
How I use this mount inside my car, locating it on the lowered window and the door.
One thing I have learned is that preparation is just as important when photographing from a car as it is for any other form of successful endeavour. I always make sure that I'm ready to roll before entering the shooting zone. I used to wait until something caught my eye, but by the time I was ready to shoot the moment had passed. Now I'll pull over and get myself sorted in good time. The first thing I do is attach my camera body to my favourite lens, checking that it's loaded and switched on. This is placed next to me on the front passenger seat, resting on a jacket or other padding, (I prefer a jacket because in bright sun a fold of the jacket can be used to shield the camera from unwanted sunlight, and on freezing days I can wear it). Accessories are kept in a small compartment that sits neatly between the front seats. Lowering the window I position a window mount where I know it is most comfortable for me. I also rest a beanbag on my lap.

Something I haven't mentioned is covering the windows. A decision needs to be made about this. I've found that wildlife that live in areas with regular traffic and frequently stopping vehicles can become very nervous when I'm hidden from view, I suppose they are used to seeing someone in a car. Less habituated subjects will approach much closer when no movement can be seen. In these circumstances I suspend a couple of sniper nets inside my car (I bought these very cheaply from an army surplus store). I've hung a couple of cords from front to back above the windows which allow me to quickly hang these nets using a few clothes pegs. It must be done on both sides to reduce the risk of a moving silhouette spooking a potential subject. No doubt everybody will have their own idea of how their equipment should be laid out, each system refined by trial and error. This is what works for me.

APPROACH

Now I'm ready to roll. I drive slowly, really slowly, at not much more than walking pace. Listening and looking as I glide along I'm also keeping my eyes open for signs of other traffic (the last thing I want is to be in the way of someone as they round a bend or come over a hill). I listen as hard as I look because hearing calls or sounds of activity is often the first sign of something in the area. Once I've found a potential subject it's essential that I keep my approach smooth. How you close in on a subject is much more important than the size and colour of your four-wheeled hide. What I don't do is scream to a shuddering halt. This will alarm even the most trusting of creatures and it also means that I'm travelling too fast.

If something pops up next to me the best thing I can do is keep moving by, gently slow to a halt, and then consider the possibility of trying another approach. Ideally I'll see something in good time so that I can stop a reasonable distance away. Then I'll slowly edge forward. If I start getting too close too soon my target will begin to move away. If this happens I know it's time to stop a while. I'll take some photographs if I'm close enough, if not I'll watch and wait for signs of relaxation (feeding, preening etc.). There is no point in chasing a nervous animal or bird - if they don't settle down it's time to look for something else.

EXECUTION

in use
How it looks when in use. Camouflage scrim reduces the visual impact of the lens and breaks up my shape from inside the car.
When it comes to taking photographs I can place a beanbag and camera onto my window mount in one smooth movement. If I want more room I'll simply slide my seat back a little. In no time at all I'm ready to shoot. Many photographers will favour only a beanbag, but I much prefer the support of a mount as well.

I have a wonderful mount that has been hand crafted from wood by someone who is much more skilled than I. When positioned it resembles a "V" turned through ninety degrees, the upper leg of which lies horizontal while the other carries out a supporting role. It adjusts to suit different window heights and the top bed swivels, which really helps when I'm composing a picture. It is a little heavy, but that's not a problem in a car. The weight also helps to keep it in place, as it doesn't clamp on to anything. This may sound unstable but it isn't. What it does mean is that I can very quickly change from one side of my car to the other. This speed of changing has allowed me to get numerous shots that I would otherwise have missed.

I can use this mount hanging either inside or outside my car. I prefer to use it inside. Yes it is a little more cramped but it also places the viewfinder right where I want it, without any undue twisting or stretching. Remember, this is meant to be photography in comfort.

Once my camera is in position I will brace it with a hand placed gently but firmly on top of the lens and the camera back resting against my cheek. Supported in this way I have successfully taken shots with various focal lengths, and at some surprisingly slow shutter speeds. And by the way - you must turn off the engine; otherwise vibration will ruin any chance you have of getting a pin-sharp result.

Don't be tempted to drive along with your camera on the window mount. At an unexpected moment your attention may be grabbed by the gut wrenching sound of shattering lens hitting tarmac. Considering that it only takes me three seconds to position my camera it is hardly worth the risk. One very important point to note, that is of no concern to the ground hugging outdoor photographer, is the need to be considerate of other road users and to drive safely. Having an accident due to inattention or bad parking will surely ruin your day.